Sometimes I picture a great piece of action, but when I come to write it out, it takes too many words. The complications becomes too fussy, slowing the momentum, more trouble than they’re worth.
I regularly find ways to improve action by making it stronger and clearer, getting a better, sharper sequence of movements. I revise action more often than dialogue or description or anything else.
Consider the case of helping someone climb to the top of a wall. Simple? Not when you try to set down all the acts and coordinations involved. For example:
Paddy takes up a position with his back against the wall.
He makes a cradle of his hands.
Megan puts her left foot into the cradle.
She hoists herself upwards, gripping his shoulders for balance.
He raises the cradle of his hands, while she raises her right foot and scrambles to step on his shoulder.
She brings her left foot up onto his other shoulder.
She stretches and gets her elbows over the top of the wall.
He shifts position again, and pushes her up further with his hands against the soles of her feet …
Whoa! Is it really that important to the story? If it is, then fine, go into slow-mo. But if getting up on top of the wall is only on the way to the important things that Megan sees or does from the top, then better to cut it short.
In this case, there’s the handy word ‘boost’.
Paddy gave Megan a boost up to the top of the wall.
But if the word ‘boost’ didn’t exist, it might be simpler to have Megan scale the wall by herself.
Another possibility is to skim over the action with dialogue:
‘I’m going to look out from the top,’ said Megan. ‘Help me up.’
Paddy nodded. ‘Okay. Give me your foot.’
‘Hold steady now.’
‘Higher. I’m nearly there.’
Dialogue is a way of lifting out of the action, while giving some indication of what’s going on. Perhaps the reader will form the exact picture you hoped for. Or if not, well, at least Megan has got to the top of the wall, in place for the important action.
Interior thinking can work in a similar way. Here’s an example from Worldshaker -
[Col] exploded like an unbound spring. First Lumbridge: a straight sharp jab to the nose that made him yelp. Then Haugh, then Prewitt, then one of the boys from 5A. Punch after punch struck home, to jaw, to groin, to kidneys. He kept at arm’s length, poised and spinning on his toes. He felled the other 5A boy with a kick behind the knees, he swung Fefferley by the arm to crash against Melstruther.
It was as though everything had fallen into place. Once he threw himself into non-stop fighting, he was caught up in the rhythm, his timing was perfect. He didn’t need to remember about watching for intentions in his opponents’ eyes—he just did it. He didn’t need to decide about different punches for different targets—his body decided for him. He was like Riff herself, in a trance of sure-footed motion.
Their canes only made them clumsy. They missed him and ended up hitting the furniture—or their fellow-attackers. Col snatched Flarrow’s cane from his hands and poked him in the chest with it.
The first paragraph describes a sequence of acts; the second paragraph lifts out of the action but still gives an impression of what’s going on; the very last sentence comes back to a particular act.
(More on this in relation to Pacing)